It has become popular to identify the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee – today – as the beginning of the Lenten season, even though Lent starts three weeks from tomorrow (for Orthodox and some Greek Catholics). This Sunday carries special significance because it is the first one that begins singing from the Lenten hymnal known as the Lenten Triodion.
A review of the history of the length of Lent and of the preparatory season can be found elsewhere, in the academic writings of scholars such as Archbishop Job Getcha, Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, and Nicholas Russo.
Identifying today as the beginning of a journey that ends with Pascha is understandable because of the energy devoted to Pascha.
Defining Lent as a journey to Pascha, though, is misleading, for three reasons.
First, it places so much emphasis on Lent as a holy season that the fifty days that follow Pascha tend to lie in the shadows, except for the most devoted adherents. Everything is invested in Lent – this is why there are so many services, so much exhortation to become busier by adding more to the weekly calendar. Lent has another face – a time of quiet vigil, alone , in prayer and patient listening for God’s voice. This face of Lent cannot be displayed if we’re running from one place to another even more frantically than usual.
Second, what was once two preparatory Sundays before Lent is now four, or even five, depending on how one is counting. When will pre-Lent become longer than Lent itself? At that point, won’t we have truly constructed something new that has limited footing in tradition?
Third, is Pascha the “destiny” of the journey? If it is, what about the overwhelming illumination of the many Sundays of Pascha, and the great feast that finishes the cycle, Pentecost? Is a communal feast the destiny of a journey?
Here is another way of looking at preseasons and seasons, feasts and solemnities. All of them are necessary moments of true encounter, of foretaste of communion, of opening one’s self to God’s healing and transformative power so that we would continue becoming children of his kingdom. Of all the feasts, Pascha, more than all others, permeates our spiritual senses so that we feel his amnesty, and believe that we truly are children who live with him, and have irrevocable citizenship in his kingdom.
The point of the journey is not to be more busy, or to designate Pascha (or Pentecost) as the end of the journey. It is to prepare us for the destiny awaiting us all – death, as a temporary passage to eternal communal life shared with God.
These preseasons, seasons, and holidays are like a train ride with stops. When we stop at Pascha, we get back on the train. When we get off the train to live eternally in the kingdom promised to us, with God, then our journey has ended.
May our journey – to God – be blessed.
Indeed, death is the last stop on our earthly journey. The entire liturgical year prepares us for this final destination for our earthly body. The mystery that lies beyond the grave is a new journey, a new path with no end. Unknown yet known, dark yet light, awesome yet peaceful, fulfilled yet unfulfilled until the second coming. Then all will be revealed when our Lord comes again in glory. Then there will be no end, no last stop, no final destination. We will have arrived where there is no time or space, where the worship of the Holy Trinity is unending, where all is made new in light and love.
The cover photo is St Lawrence parish in Felton CA.
Thank you for this perspective.
Fr. Nick–I once heard a very wise priest say that the Fast is not an easy journey. We can’t be tempted to just continue on our daily lives during this time as if everything is the same. And so the Church gives us the opportunity to gather together in worship more frequently to support each other along the way. I like that, I’ve never forgotten it, and I hope that it’s a helpful perspective. Forgive me, a sinner.